Review: Blackfish

Image from:

Rating: 3.5/4.0 star

This documentary is a must-see for anyone, especially those interested in animal welfare. It follows the story of Tilikum, an orca, killer whale or blackfish, whichever name you prefer.

Tilikum, or Tilly was captured from the wild and we are shown what has happened to him since then, being shunted around various marine mammal parks. In one park the animals were kept in a tiny pen, here there was no chance to get away from one another and aggression built up, and as such Tilly was often ‘raked’. (Raking is the process whereby orca whales scratch each other with their teeth to assert dominance; Tilly was bottom of the social hierarchy.) The general consensus is that over the years being kept in unnatural proximity to other whales has made Tilly psychotic.

Orcas are highly social animals, often travelling in groups of 40-50 individuals, all of which are related. What SeaWorld and Sealand of the Pacific have done is taken a few of these individuals out of the wild, and placed them with other orcas they have no relation to. It’s not natural and no wonder aggression occurs.

Below are some orca facts that the film touches on:

  • Average Lifespan: Females: 50 years in the wild, 20-30 years in captivity ; Males: 50-60 years in the wild, 30 years in captivity (sometimes wild orcas have lived up to 80 years old)
  • Dorsal fin collapse isn’t common in the wild. There are several theories to it’s cause, but it may be due to swimming in small circles in captivity, due to reduced space.
  • There have been no reported fatal attacks on humans in the wild.

It should also be pointed out that orcas come from the same family as dolphins, an example of another mammal which should not be kept in captivity, but still is. There is a heart rending moment when one of the female orcas can be seen and heard screaming when her calf is taken away from her.

What I find shocking is that SeaWorld managed to hide many of the attacks on trainers as ‘incidents’ and often other trainers had no idea anything had happened. Hiding 70 human injuries really isn’t something to be proud of, and any trust you may have had in SeaWorld is certainly gone by this point.

I just feel sorry that Tilikum has ended up killing three people, it’s not his fault and it’s not the trainers fault. Imagine being kept in only a few rooms of a house, knowing there is a whole world outside where you once could go. The trainers themselves have mostly been brainwashed into thinking that what they do is actually helping the animals. The moment in the film when you hear during an orca show ‘The whales aren’t doing this because they have to, they are doing it because they want to’ set my teeth on edge. No, that’s a big fat lie, the orcas just do it because if they don’t, you won’t give them any fish.

SeaWorld’s official response to this documentary did make me laugh. It says the film ‘exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau’s family, friends and colleagues’. I highly doubt that as they feature in the documentary, if they didn’t want to then they wouldn’t be in it. The family clearly think the world should know and rightly so. The statement then continues to try and make us look at the good points of SeaWorld, as it does carry out research as well as rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals. However, a zoological institution should know better than to continue to keep orcas in captivity. If they could just accept what they are doing is wrong, and release them back into the wild, then you could almost forgive them. Let’s hope no more human lives have to be lost before they take action.

The problem I have with this documentary is that it lacks the scientific background behind why Tilly, and other whales, shouldn’t be kept in captivity. Whales, and dolphins rely on echolocation and have brilliant hearing, so the noise of crowds and screaming is like daily torture. Consequently they are often depressed, and can even commit suicide (yes, they are conscious breathers).

However, at the very least this documentary should make you want to boycott SeaWorld (if you hadn’t already) and Loro Parque, in fact all marine mammal parks. If you want to see orcas or dolphins see them in the wild, it’s their natural environment. They are too intelligent to be cooped up, if we can fight for free range eggs, then we sure can fight for the freedom of marine mammals. I’d highly recommend watching The Cove, the Blackfish equivalent for dolphins, which provides a greater scientific understanding as to why we should leave marine mammals be.

Here’s a petition for the release of Tilikum into a seapen, as he is too damaged and old to be set free in the wild:



Key Concept | Peak Oil | Conventional vs. unconventional

Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada. Image: WWF

In Peak Oil article #2 we looked at the history of the concept, as well as some problems and complications. This article will focus on a complication that requires more detail and attention – that of “conventional” and “unconventional” sources of oil.

It’s important to remember first of all that oil is not a single substance but rather a spectrum of substances, from “light oils through a series of increasingly lower grade and difficult-to-extract resources such as extra-heavy oil and tar sands.”

“Conventional” oil is defined by the Energy Watch Group as “oil which can be produced with current technology under present economic conditions.” The UKERC (UK Energy Research Centre) define conventional oil as including “crude oil, condensate and natural gas liquids (NGLs) but to exclude liquid fuels derived from oil sands, oil shale, coal, natural gas and biomass”. 95% of all oil consumed so far in human history has been from conventional sources.

Unconventional (or non-conventional), then, is typically whatever is left out of the definition of conventional. Unconventional oils are at the “heavier end” of the oil spectrum, consisting of products that are increasingly harder to extract and refine such as tar sands or oil shale. David Greene and colleagues writing in Energy Policy also state that “Ultimately, the distinction between conventional and unconventional resources is based on technology and economics” and that “massive development” of these sources will be necessary if society wishes to keep consuming oil. But the issue is still tricky – according to Dr. Colin Campbell in the IPRD report “The Post-Peak World” there is still no “standard definition” for what constitutes conventional or unconventional oil. These definition differences affect which sources of oil we study, and thus can affect calculating the time of peak oil.

The pyramid of oil and gas resource volume versus resource quality. Image: David Hughes, Drill, Baby, Drill: Can Unconventional Fuels Usher in a New Era of Energy Abundance?

So how do the resources stack up? Estimates abound that the peaking of conventional oil has either already happened, or will do so in the near future. Doctor Steve Mohr in his PhD thesis estimates that conventional oil will peak at or before the year 2017. The UKERC are more optimistic, with estimates of the peak ranging from 2009 to 2031, and they state that “forecasts that delay the peak until after 2030 rest upon several assumptions that are at best optimistic and at worst implausible” (similar peak estimates are made by Robert Kaufmann and Laura Shiers). Larry Hughes and Jacinda Rudolph claim that instead of peaking, conventional oil production has recently “reached a plateau“, with production neither rising nor falling for the time being. Even the IEA (International Energy Agency) claims that conventional oil production is “declining at an average annual rate of over 4%“, the equivalent of “47 million barrels per day” or “twice the current Middle East production”, and in its World Energy Outlook 2012 stated that conventional oil is now past peak production. But Dr. Colin Campbell states the peak of conventional oil has already happened, passing us by in 2005.

If we want to continue consuming oil we’ll have to turn towards the remaining unconventional sources. But even these sources, in a best-case scenario, “can only delay the peaking of world oil production by about 25 years” . They are expensive “financially, energetically, politically and especially environmentally“. They will also require huge investments in infrastructure in order to produce and distribute the resources effectively, and require “more than 10% of sustained growth” in production in order to temper the impact of conventional oil production peaking. In short, unconventional sources are no panacea for the peaking of conventional sources.

Next time we’ll look at the murkier waters of how economics and geology affect the timing of the peak, and the role of technology in accelerating production and opening up new resources.

Review: Africa 2013: Countdown to the Rains Episode 3


Presenters Simon King and Kate Humble. Image from: Spencer Scott Travel

Rating: four star

This was the last of three episodes set in the stunning Luangwa Valley in Zambia. The last two episodes have slowly introduced more animals and their lives and this episode is mostly spent catching up with the stories so far.

After a short shower in last weeks episode the weather is dry and warm again. Without enough rain the drought has proved too much for some of the hippos, providing food for other animals, including red-billed oxpeckers. We see both the wild dogs and the lions down on the salt pans. With the small rain shower, many species have given birth, including the impala. The wild dogs decide to go hunting and a pup even manages to catch and impala fawn. The lions, on the other hand, have decided to hunt buffalo, catching enough to feed them for a couple of days. The agility and power of lions and wild dogs still surprises me.

Simon heads out to try and find some leopards one last time, before dawn has even broken. Leopards are highly elusive animals so it can take a long time to find them, especially as they are so well camouflaged. Through reading the behaviour of other animals in the bush he works out a leopard must be nearby. He stops by a fig tree, a favourite of leopards as they love to dangle off the horizontal branches, and notices that the helmeted guinea fowl are on edge. Over the edge of a mound comes bounding  a leopard cub, honing his hunting skills on the guinea fowl. Then appears his mother, this is not only a leopard, as Simon says, but ‘the’ leopard family from an earlier episode. I genuinely can’t believe their luck. 

Towards the end of the episode the clouds are building once again, then a wall of sand comes up the river, with torrential rain straight behind it. We see how heavy the rain is falling, and then in the aftermath Kate shows that several of the crews tents have been blown down. This is the typical African storm I know; heavy rain and winds. Unfortunately the rain did not last very long, however there are still green shoots to be found springing up. The elephants have moved away towards where the rain was headed in search of fresh growth. The young elephant with a shortened trunk is spotted, much to my delight. I am glad it has survived the drought.

A female in the salt pan pride of lions has been seen wondering alone, so they decide to follow her. This provides a wonderful ending to the series, when we discover she has had two cubs. They are just so tiny and adorable. We are lucky to have seen them, as they were hiding in the bush. It goes to show that learning a bit about animal behaviour can lead you to great finds like this.

Finally I got to watch the red button extras, which by the way you can catch on iplayer. We get a glimpse into the lives of hyenas. The Lion King hasn’t really done them any favours and they are a fascinating animal. Similarly vultures are talked about, they may not look pretty but they are essential to avoid disease spreading as they eat animal carcasses that may have infected tissue. The problem of snaring is also highlighted, as the bushmeat trade is a very real problem to the future of animals. The crocodile eggs still haven’t hatched, and it looks like the real rains are on their way. They need to have more than normal to compensate for the lack of rain last year. It could just be that they are seeing the impacts of climate change, but let’s hope not.

What are the causes of deforestation in the Amazon?

Deforestation in part of the Amazon taken by a NASA satellite in 2007. Image from:

It has recently been reported in the news that deforestation in the Amazon has increased by 28% in a year. This is on top of an area the size of Panama being lost to deforestation each year. 1 Pretty much everyone knows that it is occurring, but do they know exactly why? The main causes are listed below:

1. The growing of crops. 2 The main culprits are soy and palm oil. Unfortunately palm oil manages to worm its way into many products nowadays, so it is hard to avoid eating products with it in. However, recently there has been a drive towards sustainable palm oil, but this is only effective if enforced at ground level and not just on paper. As for soy, vegetarians beware, you may think that not eating animal products isn’t impacting the environment, but it certainly is in a big way if you eat soy based products.

2. Cattle farming, for example, most corned beef comes from Brazil. 3 The clearing of large areas of land provides ideal grazing grounds. This is the main cause of deforestation, with arable farming occurring on redundant pasture land.

3. For the hardwood itself. This is used by big multi-national corporations as well as subsistence by locals. A large part of wood removal is illegal.

4. In order to build on the land. Brazil, where most of the Amazon rainforest lies, has a booming population.

5. Oil exploitation. If you don’t know the story of the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador then you should get acquainted with it. 4 Despite massive opposition from around the world, and huge funds being raised by richer countries to avoid the destruction of this area of the Amazon, the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa has given the go ahead for oil drilling. 5 As my friend would put it, capitalism. Ecuador is a poor country and cannot resist a chance to become rich. The world demands oil at almost any price, and they can provide this need. This shows why it is important to switch to renewable energy as soon as possible.

These of course, are not all of the causes. However, as can be seen from the ones listed above man’s greed is the driver behind many of them. Without support from other countries Brazil will continue to exploit the Amazon rainforest as it is a large source of income. This is not solely Brazil’s problem, it is a global problem which will not truly be solved until we are sustainable. The sad fact of the matter is that after a while the growing of the crops, grazing of cattle and removal of the wood, degrades the soil to such an extent that nothing can grow on it. The reasons why the soil of the Amazon is so fertile and the effects of deforestation shall be discussed in future blog posts.







Key Concept | Peak Oil | History

Shell Geologist M. King Hubbert. Image: The Cutting Edge News

The geophysicist M. King Hubbert was the first to introduce the concept of peak oil in what is now called Hubbert peak theory, where the shape of a graph representing an oil-producing region would resemble a bell curve (although the actual shape may be irregular and unsymmetrical[1]).

In 1956[2] he used peak oil models to successfully estimate that oil production in the USA would peak between 1965 and 1970. His attempts to calculate global peak oil revealed the limitations of his theory however. In 1962[3] he predicted that the peak of global oil reserves would be reached in 2000, but his model did not incorporate artificial limits to oil production, such as the OPEC-led 1973 oil crisis.

A key problem with Hubbert’s peak theory is its reliance on a value known as URR, or Ultimate Recoverable Reserves. URR “is the amount of oil that has already been produced plus the oil that will be produced in the future.”[4] The URR can change if new oil fields are discovered, though such a possibility is now unlikely and probably unhelpful – for example, “increasing the global URR by one billion barrels delays the date of peak production by only 4.7 days”[5] and total oil discoveries have been steadily declining since the 1960s.[6]

Additionally Hubbert’s 1956 prediction was based on reliable and accurate data supplied by USA regulations. For global URR estimates, there is no single equivalent accurate dataset. Datasets regarding the URR left do exist but all include approximations and estimates.

Also, oil-producing countries may exaggerate their own oil supplies for economic gains, as “belief that a country’s reserves are large boosts its economic clout and creditworthiness with international banks and investors.”[7] Almost 90% of global oil reserves are owned by nationalised oil companies[8] which are not legally obligated to provide reliable reserve estimates.[9] To put it simply, “Oil data are not of public domain and this imposes strong limitations on scientific evaluation and control.”[10]

Despite this, “Hubbert curves” are deemed sound enough to be used in calculating not only peaks in oil reserves, but also for other non-renewable resources such as coal, natural gas, and phosphorus.[11]

In the next article on peak oil, we’ll look at the problems of classifying oil as “conventional” or “unconventional”, as well as looking at the conflicts between economics and geology when it comes to estimating the time of peak oil.

Review: Africa 2013: Countdown to the Rains Episode 2


Presenters Simon King and Kate Humble
Image: Spencer Scott Travel

Rating: Four star

This was the second episode in a three-part series about the Luangwa Valley before the rains arrive, and it was packed with rare sightings and information about the species seen.

Sadly we learn that the baby elephant that was seen last week, died a few days later. They suspect the mother simply didn’t have enough milk to give the baby, given that food is low in the dry season. The sight of the mother sniffing the air around the calf, and waiting to see if it was going to get up was touching.

We learn that a big lion pride is moving closer to the river for food and drink, getting closer to the smaller resident pride we were introduced to last week. This could spell trouble for the smaller pride, as if they encounter the larger pride, their cubs may be killed.

They really seem to be getting lucky this series, as one of the filming crew came across some African wild dogs. These are one of the most majestic animals in Africa in my opinion. They are also called painted dogs, and are listed as endangered with an estimated population of between 3000 and 5000 individuals. The group they come across had quite a few pups, and it was lovely to see them doing so well.

The other focus of the programme was on crocodiles which were amassing in the river due to the high volume of prey and dead hippo carcasses. It was interesting to see hippos trying to defend the dead carcass of one of their number. They had an expert on who explained that crocodiles sit on guard above their eggs once they had laid them. I had no idea they would do something like that.

Towards the end of the episode the rains have arrived in part of the area they are filming in, but are yet to reach the main river. Kate Humble is speaking and you can hear a thunder storm in the background. Unfortunately, I turned over for Downton Abbey again so missed the red button extras. However, next week I should be able to watch them.  

Key Concept | Greenwashing


What is greenwashing?

Simply, it is a form of PR that companies use in order to appear environmentally responsible, when really they aren’t.

The term was coined by Jay Westervelt in 1986 upon seeing signs in hotels encouraging the reuse of towels. They claimed this would save energy from reduced washes, whereas in reality the aim was simply the increased profits associated with reduced towel use. It is a misplaced attempt at corporate social responsibility. The point is best explained with some examples which I present below.

1. Yum! Brands, which own KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut say they want to reduce their energy consumption 10% relative to 2005, but this only applies to its company-owned stores. The number of these stores has actually decreased since 2005, with non company-owned stores increasing roughly 470% since 2005. So they are not exactly living up to expectations. 1

2. The rebranding of British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum in 2000 was somewhat misleading, especially as oil is still one of the dirtiest industries. So need I even mention the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and its environmental impact to prove that they haven’t exactly gone green.  2 3

3. The UK actually banned this Malaysian Palm Oil Council advert as it was so misleading: The video says that the palm oil brings life, when in fact the palm trees are causing a huge amount of destruction around the world. 4

Try to be aware of the parent companies of brands. For example, Green and Blacks, a usually trusted brand, is actually owned by Kraft. Seeds of Change is owned by Mars.

In conclusion, don’t be fooled by companies. Think about the claims they are making, whether they are true or really do anything to help the environment. No doubt as we demand companies to be more responsible, the frequency of greenwashing will increase. However, remember after all, actions speak louder than words.

I find this image sums it up nicely:


1 Pearse, G. 2012

2 Cherry, M.A. and Snierson, J.F. 2010 

3 Wikipedia details on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

4 Malaysian Palm Oil Council advert ban

Key Concept | Peak Oil | Introduction

Total World Production of Fossil Fuels in Time Perspective[1]

 “We are in a crisis in the evolution of human society. It’s unique to both human and geologic history. It has never happened before and it can’t possibly happen again. You can only use oil once. You can only use metals once. Soon all the oil is going to be burned and all the metals mined and scattered.” – M. King Hubbert[2]

Peak Oil” is a very contentious phenomenon, the focal point of clashes between geology and technology. The various definitions of peak oil all focus on the unchangeable “peaking” of oil extraction in a given area; that is to say, once peaked, oil extraction will irreversibly decline regardless of technological or economic factors[3]. This is understandably a problem, as our global society requires oil (and other fossil fuels) for a veritable multitude of purposes including heavy industry and resource extraction, transport, agriculture, and chemicals, as well as for energy. Like it or not, oil is inextricably a part of our lives to the point that it is linked to economic indicators like GDP growth[4]. “Modern economies are, from the fundamental energetic point of view, unsustainable.”[5]

And it’s not surprising. Oil, in energy terms, packs a punch. Three spoonfuls of crude oil equals eight hours of human labour[6]. Or put another way, a gallon of petrol is almost equivalent to three weeks of human labour[7]. But its energy-dense nature represents a single-use inheritance of solar energy. The period of fossil fuel use will be a fleeting moment lost in a 200-year eye blink, representing only 0.1% of human history[8] – and the peaking of this wondrous substance will coincide with ever-increasing demands of energy from the world’s growing population, as well as the ongoing Biocrisis.

What to do?

This article is the first in the “Key Concept” series, and the first of several articles regarding the issue of peak oil. Within these articles I hope to detail and explain the history of peak oil, its impacts, the role of economics and technology in forestalling and accelerating the “peak”, and problems measuring and assessing just when the peak will arrive.  Also, what are the solutions? Can we just “plug” the gap where oil used to be with unconventional fuels? What about nuclear and renewables? Or, like Richard Heinberg describes, does our society have to undergo a voluntary “powerdown” to survive[9]? The next article in the series will focus on the history of the peak oil concept, and introduce one of the most important proponents of the phenomenon – M. King Hubbert.

[2] Quoted in Heinberg, 2005

[3] “The term Peak Oil refers the maximum rate of the production of oil in any area under consideration, recognising that it is a finite natural resource, subject to depletion.” – Colin Campbell, quoted here

[8] Ibid.

Review: Africa 2013: Countdown to the Rains Episode 1


Presenters Simon King and Kate Humble Image: Spencer Scott Travel

Rating: Four star

I love Africa so I have been anticipating the start of this three-part series, and it certainly exceeded my expectations. The premise is that over three episodes, we see all the action in and around the Luangwa River in Zambia. Herbivores are struggling to find enough food and water to survive and consequently carnivores are thriving, preying on those that are weakened. Technology advances mean that they are using 70 odd cameras to cover the action, including camera traps, and remote control cameras which can be moved up, down, left and right. 

Kate Humble points out at one point an elephant which has lost the bottom half of its trunk. It’s interesting to see how it has adapted to its disability, and I just hope it survives. I wish these wildlife programmes wouldn’t make you so attached to the animals they follow, but then I guess that’s part of their magic. Until watching the programme last night I hadn’t really thought about hippos actually getting stuck pools as they dry up. It will be interesting to see how they cope as the water keeps drying up. Particular highlights of last night had to be the lion cubs, because they are so cute, and finding the leopard and her cub. I know just how tricky it is to find a leopard, and it must have taken some luck to find them. Lovely to see them doing so well, and Simon King bothering to explaining their behaviour. There’s nothing better than an educational nature programme.

However, I did feel insulted when the voiceover person introduced the programme warning of ‘lion and buffalo kill’ scenes. For one, it’s nature and it shouldn’t really shock us that an animal has to kill to survive. Secondly, all you see is a few lions with bloodied faces and a buffalo lying dead on its side. Not really anything traumatising at all.

Unfortunately I can’t comment on the red button extras, as I turned over for Dowton Abbey, which is a real shame, but with Simon King and Kate Humble at the helm I am sure it was good. Needless to say I am excited for the next dose of action on Sunday at 8pm. 

Why is the critically endangered black rhino being auctioned off for trophy hunting?



When I read that a permit to hunt a critically endangered black rhino was going to be auctioned off, I was almost lost for words. (The article can be found here.) There are only 4,880 individuals black rhino left in the wild (statistic is from February 2013 though) 1. In fact the West African black rhino subspecies went extinct in 2006 2. Now I must say I am not opposed to trophy hunting, I think it does have a place in the conservation of African fauna and flora. It protects the area of land which the animals to be hunted live, and drives a certain amount of demand to keep species in order to kill them 3. It is big hobby among rich people to go out trophy hunting. I known in an ideal world I would like to not support trophy hunting, and fund conservation another way, but in a world driven by money, it is not a reality. However, I am afraid that the auction of this permit will set a precedent. The black rhino is far from out of the danger zone. Granting a permit is as good as saying ‘yeah, we have enough black rhinos in the wild’, giving the wrong message to the public and to poachers. 


Money from the auction is going to go back into rhino conservation in Namibia, but when you have to kill an animal in order to raise funds for its future survival something is terribly wrong. If only China and other Eastern countries didn’t have a demand for rhino horn, in the first place, the poor black rhino wouldn’t be in this pickle in the first place. Someone needs to tell them they might as well bite their nails, than use rhino horn, as it’s exactly the same thing. The photo above shows the lengths that are gone to, to protect the black rhino. This particular one is being air lifted by a military helicopter, whilst sedated, to a new home, hopefully away from the main areas poachers are targeting. A video of the airlift operation can be found here: I do urge people to watch it. With passionate people like this, I really hope the black rhino has a future. Just as long as the US based Dallas Safari Club stops being an idiot and permitting the killing of these majestic animals. The animals were here before us, humans shouldn’t be the cause of their extinction. 

If you think you need further persuasion to help protect black rhinos, just watch this link of David Attenborough and a baby rhino:

There is a petition on this page, which you should sign, even if it comes to nothing:

For further information read the article which brought this to my attention and the comments below it: